Breastfeeding is the best choice for feeding a baby and toddler, exclusive for the first 6 months and combined with other foods up to 2 years. However, the majority of children will not be breastfed that long, especially after the first year of life. Then, the question is what the best alternative would be. Breast milk provides high quality protein, calcium, and several B vitamins. These nutrients are also provided by regular milk. Therefore, 2 cups of milk (300 ml) are advised for young children. This milk provides these necessary nutrients to the developing child. Completely skipping milk from the diet is therefore unwise. Besides regular milk, there are several popular alternatives, toddler milk, goat milk, or plant-based alternatives.
A product that has gained interest in recent years is toddler milk, also called follow-up formula or growing up milk. This basically is milk enriched with several nutrients. Milk does not sufficiently provide several of these nutrients (e.g. iron, vitamin D, essential fatty acids). But as milk is not the only source of nutrients for toddlers, this is not a problem. A varied, healthy diet and separate vitamin D supplements should be sufficient to provide the necessary nutrients.
Some children can not tolerate bovine milk, for example due to lactose intolerance or cow’s milk allergy. Parents may be tempted to try milk of other mammals. Especially goat milk is drawing a lot of interest recently. However, goat milk contains the same amount of lactose compared to bovine milk. Also when it comes to proteins, goat milk is very similar to bovine milk. Therefore, children with lactose intolerance can’t tolerate goat milk, as do the far majority of children with cow’s milk allergy. Goat milk is thus seldom a solution if bovine milk can’t be consumed.
Another group of alternatives for cow’s milk are plant based product like soy drink. In case of cow’s milk intolerance or allergy, soy drink can usually be consumed without problems. When choosing a soy product for a toddler, several aspects are important. First, the product should be enriched with the same nutrients as regular milk (calcium, B vitamins) because otherwise deficiencies may arise. Second, a product without added sugar is preferred to limit sugar intake. Even when choosing such a product, the protein quality of a soy drink will still be lower than of regular milk.
In conclusion, milk is an important source of nutrients in a toddler’s diet. Special toddler’s milk or goat milk have no apparent benefit over regular bovine milk. Plant based products like enriched, sugar-free soy drink can be a good alternative if bovine milk is not tolerated, although it’s not nutritionally identical.
Kasper Hettinga, April 2017